President of Slovakia

Speech made to the Assembly

Tuesday, 24 June 2003

Mr President, dear Secretary General, distinguished members of parliament, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, it is with feelings of great responsibility but also with a thrill of delight that I take the floor before this distinguished audience representing forty-five national parliaments of the Council of Europe member countries.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank President Schieder for being so generous as to allow me to present my address at the very time when my country commemorates the tenth anniversary of its membership as an independent state. That is one of the reasons why I would like to continue my address to this respected, highly democratic Assembly, in my mother tongue, which has rarely been heard around here.

(The Speaker continued in Slovak) (Translation). – Distinguished members of parliament, the decade of an independent existence brought the Slovak Republic many sweeping changes driven by its new position as well as by the turbulent development inside Europe and around the world. Today, in the new common Europe, we share with our geographically closer but also with our more remote neighbours, the same spiritual and cultural values, which we all hold dear and consider worth protecting.

The Europe of today is experiencing an unseen movement of civilisations. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of new states with Slovakia among them give us the opportunity to rethink the values offered by the old continent. It is in this context that we need to see the discussions centred around the organisation of Europe. The objectives pursued within the integration process are noble: security, solidarity, prosperity, peace, democracy and openness toward the world around us.

The integration of Europe is therefore not only a matter of organising the single market and of running an economic and financial unit. This idea takes on an entirely new dimension if you imagine that it could bring us peace, alliance and international co-operation throughout the entire continent of Europe. We stand at the threshold of an era in which countries are united within continental Europe and in which European nations live together on the basis of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.

If Europe was able to act and react as a single entity, it could secure stability on a global scale. It is imperative for us to realise this, because we live in times of heated discussions about the direction the co-operation within Europe should take and, at the same time, in times when people are more concerned about their national identity.

However, taking things a step back and hiding behind our national borders will not create new jobs or solve our security problems or facilitate our efforts to maintain and modernise our states or help us solve issues related to crime and it will certainly not help us to overcome environmental protection issues. All the issues I just mentioned have no respect for borders.

The Council of Europe deserves a lot of credit for advancing the process of unification within Europe. It was the Council of Europe which was the first body to open its doors to the countries which, not by their own fault, were isolated by the notorious Iron Curtain and, for many years, remained locked outside the beneficial environment of European democracy. Thanks to the Council of Europe – as we say – we returned to Europe even though we have never left it.

Slovakia takes part in a number of co-operation programmes run by the Council of Europe aimed at helping the new member countries to create and stabilise their internal democratic systems. The Council of Europe was able to provide very efficient assistance in the reform of our judiciary and to help us in setting up democratic institutions and designing legislative regulations that reflect the political, economic and social changes.

Based on my own experience in regional or local politics, I can, at this point, appreciate how much we needed the assistance and support of the Council of Europe to develop democracy on the level of our emerging local self-governments. Today, we expect that these local self-governments will help us to bridge the dramatic discrepancies that exist among the individual regions in terms of standard of living. These discrepancies remain the main burden of our dynamic economic growth, weighing heavily on the satisfaction of our people with the ongoing transformation processes and reforms.

One of the great challenges for our government is to improve the situation in the regions as, in terms of all relevant indicators, our capital and the surrounding region are virtually on a par with the European Union and its self-governmental bodies are sketching out bold plans for future development, while the eastern parts of Slovakia are struggling with staggering unemployment rates and declining levels of education, let alone the chronic lack of funds for regional development.

We realise that it was due to the harmonisation of our legal system with the European standards and due to our receptiveness to the European legislation that we managed to adapt over a relatively short period of time to the European system of values. Slovakia is, therefore, today ready to help others in areas we are experienced in.

At this point, I would like to emphasise in particular our cross-border co-operation. The main purpose and at the same time the main benefit of cross-border co-operation is the development of contacts among people, representatives of self-governments, small and medium-sized companies, students and members of various associations and unions.

Having such a vibrant, fruitful and promising co-operation is an ideal and effective vehicle to increase the convenience for the people living along Slovakia’s borders with all our five neighbouring countries. On my initiative, Slovakia’s co-operation with the Czech Republic, the Republic of Poland and the Republic of Hungary has been conducted under the joint auspices of Vàclav Havel, Alexander Kwasniewski, Ferenc MàdI and myself.

Distinguished members of parliaments, I believe that we, as the community of Council of Europe member states, fully subscribe to the idea of a Europe whole and free. A Europe, that takes all countries and all their nationals as equal partners with equal rights and obligations. I believe all of us here today agree that the protection of the values revered by Europeans must be proactive, transparent and direct, with the obligation for every single one of us to respect the established rules. We must point to the flaws in the system and look for ways to correct them.

During the time of our membership in the Council of Europe, Slovakia has been on more than one occasion criticised for its development though this is not easy for all those, who, on a political, professional or interpersonal level, participate in this difficult task of the Council of Europe. In particular I would like to thank Mr Schieder, Mr Schwimmer and our rapporteurs for the valuable advice they have given us.

One area in which Slovakia still remains the target of your criticism is the situation of the Roma population in our country. Let me take this opportunity to recall that during my time as the mayor of the town of Kosice, in a region with a fairly sizeable Roma population, I adhered in my actions to the fundamental premise of effective assistance – the problems of this ethnic minority can only be solved with the active involvement of the members of this minority. The experience that we have gained so far through the implementation of development programmes has confirmed that the paternalistic approach of the state toward the Roma population has taken its toll on the legal awareness and on the democratic mindset of even the best educated Roma, causing them to often misinterpret their rights and obligations.

I still dedicate a great deal of attention to this issue and therefore, from the position of the head of my state, I welcomed very much the valuable initiative called into life by my Finnish counterpart, President Tarja Halonen. That is the same Tarja Halonen who headed the team of rapporteurs when Slovakia was being accepted to the Council of Europe. Upon her suggestions, the Council of Europe will focus on improving the standard of living of the Roma population through the European Roma Forum. We have great expectations that this initiative will bring our country the necessary assistance and relief in this difficult matter.

Distinguished members of parliaments, in closing, allow me to formulate a few thoughts on the future of this indispensable organisation. The original intention of the founding fathers of the Council of Europe to unite the entire continent on the solid foundations of democracy is close to becoming reality.

Maybe, when commemorating its fifty-fifth anniversary, the Council of Europe will at last be pan-European. Maybe afterwards, the unification process will be carried forward by the European Union, although on a different basis. While the European Union will always protect its strict but reasonable economic rules, it is for the Council of Europe to watch over the noble ideals of democracy.

We need to realise that what the Europe of today needs most is not funds but rather the deepening of our ethical, cultural and social values. It is not possible to satisfy the European nations merely by setting up a single economy. The main point is to have individual European cultures working together side by side, shaping freely and spontaneously their common future based primarily on the principles of democracy. As far as its development is concerned, the European society is currently approaching a milestone, where cultural, ethical and democratic values are weaved into what we see as the fundamental pillar of a modem continental society.

Europe is faced with challenges which, if properly mastered, will enhance its overall development. What I have in mind on a continental level are common visions based on a democratic system, visions emerging from numerous discussions and from the active engagement of the people, visions resulting in new forms of social cohesion, visions addressing the protection of and the care for the community of our people in terms of solidarity, equality and responsibility. The people expect society to send out positive signals and to set up minimum thresholds of civil and democratic guarantees which cannot be bought in the market and below which our society must not be allowed to fall.

To that end, speaking from the position of Slovakia – a country maturing into a democracy – it seems appropriate for me to express my hope that, as we go forward, we will see the European Union and the Council of Europe reconsider their mutual relations, for, despite the dissimilar missions, they stand on the same foundations of shared values. They should create an environment in which the two organisations will not compete, but rather generate synergies. That is another wish of the Europeans.

Distinguished members of parliaments, justice, alongside with the respect for human rights and the protection of democracy is one the cornerstones of the European society. The European Court of Human Rights – the most renowned institution of the Council of Europe – is relentlessly watching over the fundamental rights and freedoms people have in a democratic society. This Court rightly enjoys the well-deserved respect of the Europeans for delivering fair, impartial and politically unbiased decisions. However, with regard to the number of applications brought before it, we all realise the importance of its mission in respect of the countries of central and eastern Europe. It seems as though apparently it is falling victim to its own success.

As we speak, there are discussions going on about the improvement of the Court’s efficiency. The best way for us to help and to take away some of the burden from the Court in Strasbourg is to pass laws which are in full compliance with both the Convention on the Protection of Human Rights and the Court’s case-law. The key to solving the problems of the European Court is not to be found in Strasbourg, but rather back home. The people of Slovakia have also learned how to address the European Court of Human Rights, seeking to have their human rights protected.

As a matter of fact, they learned it so well that, in terms of the number of applications filed, we rank first among all the Council of Europe member states. Despite the fact that a series of legislative measures was designed and adopted specifically with the view of improving the protection of human rights on a domestic level, the expected results failed to materialise so far.

(The speaker continued in English). – Europe is about to witness great changes, with even greater consequences. Will the Council of Europe assume its rightful place in the future European architecture? There are plans for a third summit which should provide answers from member countries to the question of whether the Council will live up to the legacy of its founding fathers.

On behalf of my country, I express my support for the summit that is to be held. For – as pilgrims are reminded by a wise proverb – “Remember, there are no pre-existing roads! Roads need to be trodden into existence!”

I will gladly receive your questions.


Thank you, President Schuster, for your most interesting address and for the kind words that you found for the Council of Europe. As you know, members of the Assembly have expressed the wish to put questions to you. You have already announced that you are willing to answer them. I remind colleagues that questions must be limited to thirty seconds and no more. Colleagues should ask questions and not make speeches. I will allow supplementary questions only at the end, and only if time permits. As many colleagues as possible should have the chance to put their first question.

The first question is from Mr Ates on behalf of the Socialist Group.

Mr ATES (Turkey)

Mr President, I welcome you to our Hemicycle. We wish you a fruitful working visit to the Council of Europe.

We all appreciate, Mr President, that as the ex-mayor of Kosice you contributed a great deal to reforms of local administration. We appreciate your support for the activities of the Council of Europe in that area.

Mr President, do you find the current transport of cooperation mechanism of the Council of Europe sufficient and efficient?

Mr Schuster, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that he thought that the arrangements were successful. He described current efforts at co-operation, mentioning that the Schengen border was still an impediment, and said that they were generally on the right track.

Mr EÖRSI (Hungary)

Mr President, I much appreciated the fact that in your introduction you spoke in depth about Hungarian status law. European liberal democrats, such as Hungarian liberals, both heard and understood your concerns. I am sure that you know that yesterday the Hungarian Parliament voted on the amendment of the status law. This law now enjoys the support of the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe. Indeed, it is supported by every neighbour of Hungary. Why is it only Slovakia that is against this new law? How do we get out of this dangerous situation?

Mr Schuster, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

regretted that Slovakia and Hungary had problems in that respect.

Mr ATKINSON (United Kingdom)

Mr President, every member state of the Council of Europe is committed to respecting existing frontiers of Europe by the Helsinki Final Act, and yours has been the only country to change its frontier by peaceful means. What advice do you give to this Assembly and our Organisation in dealing with the several separatist conflicts in member states that remain frozen and unresolved?

Mr Schuster, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that the two nations had been able to go their separate ways without animosity, which demonstrated that the Czechs and Slovaks were peaceful nations.

Ms DURRIEU (France) (translation)

I would like to thank President Schuster for his speech and for his powerful description of the European area as one of unity and co-operation, something which he himself, incidentally, has succeeded in celebrating in the best possible way.

It is ten years since Slovakia joined the Council of Europe, and the time has now come to end the monitoring procedure. The questions that I wish to put to you, Mr President, are not intended as criticisms but are merely requests for confirmation. You have answered the question about the nationality problem. What about the administrative reforms to ensure more local self-government and the Europe-wide crackdown on corruption?

Mr Schuster, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that problems existed in the Slovak Republic with corruption, the police and the prosecutor’s office. Those issues could not be solved immediately, but were being addressed by the government. Many measures were being introduced by the Ministry of Justice and other government ministries. Other countries had also experienced those problems. The issues were being taken very seriously and although the measures to combat these problems were still in their early stages, improvements would shortly be seen.

On the issue of local government, powers had delegated from the centre. Local government now had greater power to act, but it still lacked sufficient funding. When further tax reforms were introduced, more money would be available to local government and the situation would improve.

Mr MIGNON (France) (translation)

Mr President, among the issues raised in the European Union accession talks are the question of reorganising the judiciary and that of procedural law reform, to ensure greater openness in court decisions and rulings.

What is Slovakia’s policy in this area and what kind of practical help is it hoping to receive from the Council of Europe?

Mr Schuster, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that major changes had been made since 1999. A judicial council had been created and judges were appointed by the President, who was himself directly elected by the population. It was a democratic process.

Mr GROSS (Switzerland) (translation)

Mr President, you have spoken with rare eloquence of the respect for the Council of Europe which your work in the last thirteen years has given you. Do you think that you may be able to speak up for the Council in the European Union as well? You see, many of us are afraid that the Council will lose some of its importance once you join. You can believe me when I say that none of the Council’s old founder-members in the EU has ever shown the kind of esteem for it which you are showing now – and will continue to show in future.

Mr Schuster, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that accession countries like the Slovak Republic greatly appreciated the work of the Council, especially in terms of the help that had been provided in preparing for accession. After the adoption of the European Constitution, the remit of the Council would be narrower, but there were still many issues on which it could work, including elections and human rights. The Slovak Republic would continue to support the work of the Council.

Ms PETROVA-MITEVSKA ("The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”)

There is a 1 000-year link between our two nations, which dates from the time of St Cyril and Methodius and the journey of their students from Slovakia to Ohrid. Unfortunately, the current integration process has been followed by new divisions, making it difficult for us to communicate. What should be done to revise the current visa regime that you apply to the Republic of Macedonia and the other countries of our region?

Mr Schuster, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that he was very fond of “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and that he would rather visas were not imposed. However, the decision was not his. The Slovak Republic was planning to enter into an agreement with Ukraine to provide free visas and perhaps a similar arrangement could be made for “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. However, the decision was for the government and the parliament.


Thank you. The next two questions cover exactly the same scene. First is Ms Damanaki.

Ms DAMANAKI (Greece)

Your Excellency, I listened carefully to what you said about the Roma population in your country. As far as I know, following an allegation from NGOs about the sterilisation of Roma women in Slovakia, the Slovak Government has brought this case to the national courts. Is there any development on this highly sensitive issue?

Ms McCAFFERTY (United Kingdom)

Having visited Slovakia as a rapporteur looking at reproductive health in the light of the “Body and Soul” report, I welcome the extended government investigation of those reports and the changes taking place to ensure that patients have reproductive rights. What progress has been made towards raising awareness in Roma communities about reproductive health and rights, especially improving the practice of obtaining informed consent, including a standardised consent form in Slovak and in ethnic minority languages? What progress has been made on reinstating field work nurses and the training of Roma assistants? Can the President tell the Assembly whether the ten-year strategy for Roma has been published? If not, when does he expect it to be published and how will the strategy be financed?

Mr Schuster, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that Slovakia was taking the issue very seriously. The final report was not yet on the table, but Slovakia did intend to make the necessary amendments to the law. He wanted the truth to be told. He appreciated the work of NGOs, but they could sometimes make exaggerated claims. The allegations had not been confirmed, and until they were, no one should prejudge the outcome. Changes were in the pipeline to prevent any possible cases of this kind occurring in the future, but it must be remembered that there were as yet no confirmed cases of forced sterilisation. It was difficult to re-educate adults; instead it was important to address the children and work in schools. The Roma must be aware of their rights and obligations. He would inform the Council of Europe when the final report was ready.


As Slovakia and Poland are approaching accession to the European Union, some people wonder about the role of regional co-operation. What is Slovakia’s position on the role of the Visegrad Group, the central European initiative on further development and being in the European Union?

Mr Schuster, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that that was an important issue. The co-operation between the countries of the V4 was very valuable and enabled one country to pass on experience to the other countries. Poland was a strong and reliable partner of Slovakia – not just the President, but the two nations were partners. It was possible that the V4 might be enlarged. That was a viable prospect for the future and something that he would endorse. He could not support moves to end the V4. The V4 had reached out a helping hand to Slovakia, and without this Slovakia would not now be at the threshold of European Union membership.

Ms AGUIAR (Portugal) (translation)

President Schuster, I am delighted to see you here in the Assembly. I would like to congratulate you and to ask you a question about progress on women’s participation in politics and in the job market, which has undergone many changes in Slovakia in recent years. I raised this matter during the visit by our Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men to Slovakia, when we put the case for positive discrimination as a way of achieving genuine equality.

Mr President, I would like to know where you stand on this issue.

Mr Schuster, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

said that he was in favour of affirmative action and positive discrimination. This was a serious and an interesting issue. There were not enough women in parliament. Statistically, women’s participation rate in the labour market was low in Slovakia. There were, of course, both negative and positive examples. For example, Slovakia had sent four female ambassadors to the Council of Europe. Slovakia must address the issue not by words but by deeds. It would be good to aim to have two or three women in the government.


Thank you. If I may say so, they were not only four female ambassadors, but also four very active female ambassadors.

The next question is from Mr Mercan from Turkey.

Mr MERCAN (Turkey)

My question has been partly answered. Slovakia has taken important steps towards jurisdictional reforms to which you have made a personal contribution. Do you believe that jurisdictional independence has been widely achieved in your country? What else can be done?

Mr Schuster, President of Slovakia (interpretation)

described the judicial system, including the appointment and dismissal of judges. He said that there were a number of outstanding issues such as corruption involving the political and judicial systems, but the judicial system was independent.


Thank you.

That brings to an end the questions to President Schuster. I thank you most warmly on behalf of the Assembly for your address, for your remarks and for answering the questions.